If I Made a Game: Black Box

If I Made a Game: Black Box

Background: This is my idea, but it comes from a kind of weird place, though I guess, in the grand scheme of things, especially when it comes to gamers, it's probably not that weird. Besides video games, my youth past the age of 10 was spent playing Dungeons & Dragons. At first it is was just my friend Aaron and I, piecing together worlds and adventures with a shitty set of miniatures and some preset boards used as the set up for games like Heroquest or Battle-somethingorother.

At the end of high school, my girlfriend at the time introduced me to the group that would come to define my early 20s, both in the lessons we learned together and the excellent and many nights of gaming we spent with each other. All of them were important to me, but one of them, Dave, was the only one I ever kept in serious touch with, and he would go on to be the best man at my wedding, and probably one of the best men I ever knew period. He died last September. I think this idea, this game, even if nothing ever comes of it, is my way of dealing with that.

One of the campaigns we ran was with a system from Green Ronin Games named Spycraft. It took the d20 system, added a modern setting, and dropped in a set of rules to make the kind of things James Bond did accessible, repeatable, and explainable in a common vernacular. Dave created the series of adventures we went on for an agency that never had a name but was nonetheless made whole by the unique cast of characters he created. This game is the next level of that. It's something that I wish I could run by him, cause he would have a 100,000 ideas of things to add, things to change, things to remove, and rules to implement. Outside of my wife, he was the best sounding board for completely off the map ideas, and as such, we complimented each other well.

Dave, this is for you.

Title: Black Box

Notes: I am not very artistic at all, so it's all words. Every so often I try to describe things with scenes or characters from movies, as that's the kind of visual things that I am familiar with and can easily access and get a feeling from. This probably ripe for more then a few TL;DR's, but if you stick with it, I think the vision it presents is kind of exciting.

Pitch: There's very little that interests me as much as the spy game. Intrigue, playing a role, the constant reshaping of the field of battle based on information that is both known and assumed. Yes there are pop culture icons like James Bond or Jason Bourne, but for every one of them is a hundred or more working the trenches, doing the research, capturing the data and intelligence that makes the espionage community tick.

Black Box (the name is a take off of flight recorders, Black Box theaters, and Black Box theory) is one of those trench level organizations, though one expressly separate from any specific governmental oversight. They are mercenary in nature, as far as doing jobs for pay, deal specifically in information retrieval and in some extreme cases, destruction. They are known for their results, their secrecy, and their ability to get in, accomplish their objective, and get out without knowledge of their operations and/or bloodshed. In fact, were it not for their results, no one would even know that they exist.

You are a new recruit to Black Box. Given the position of Handler, you are assigned a team of field experts, and given a choice of assignments. You have to do the research, propose a plan of action, execute the plan, and get your objective without alerting the mark, whether it be person, property or group, to your presence.


As stated in the pitch, you will be in control of the team's Handler. I would have you create him from scratch, similar to, and I can't believe I am saying this, Alpha Protocol, with the difference being that your character wouldn't be made of talking cardboard. You would have a number of skill points to assign at the beginning to distribute, as well as direct control of your team and their abilities, ala XCOM.

A little info on missions first. Teams are allocated a set of resources upon accepting a job. Parties wishing to hire have to make a pre-payment based on hazard of job, type of information being retrieved, and a set amount, referred to as the par, or what it would take to run the operation in perfect conditions. These resources serve as your currency, paying for training, mission intel, and equipment. When the job is completed, success equals an additional payout, failure means that the client is given back all but the par amount.

Jobs are split into three sections: Pre-operation, Field ops, and Debriefing. Pre-operations are completely based on the Handler (you) and their chosen skills and point allocation. Research is done during this phase. It is also the time when team members are brought in, their skills assigned or refined, and a plan is put together.

Field Ops comprises anything that happens once the plan is set into motion.

Debriefing is after mission. Success is determined, payout is made. In the case of a mission failure, all resources except for the par amount would be returned to the hiring party. If those resources were spent, you would be left in the negative, and the amount would be taken out of the resources your next job. Obviously too many failures would result in the inability to make up the debt, thereby ending your career and most likely, your life.

Pre-operation: This is the stage where you would be able to spend resources on furthering skills, hiring/rehiring team members, and planning the operation. Types of things that can be done during this stage.

  • Research: Performing reserach would grant you access to information about where the job takes place, what kind of people will be involved, etc. Getting information of this kind takes time, so points in this skill would allow you to make better use of the time pre-job, spend less resources (bribes etc.) to get that information, and be better able to put it to use in operations.
  • Operation Planning would go into things like mission planning and set-up. In my mind, I am picturing this skill to include visits to the site, the ability to get into an security systems, cameras, phone lines. Once the site was studied, more points would allow further options for planning entries, setting mission times and a schedule of operations, and planning exit routes.
    • It is important to note that the plan you set forward will be the plan your agents follow. You will not be in control of individual agents. They are in the field, you are their eyes, the voice in their ears relaying all the information they need to make the best decisions possible.

The Pre-op stage is also where your team would be put together. Teams must always include 1 field agent, and can have up to a maximum of 3. They are broken down into three disciplines. You are free to include as many or as few disciplines as you would like.

  • Faceman (or woman): During an operation, the faceman is your most exposed agent. They are consumate actors, able to take on a role and adapt that role as necessary. When you need someone to walk right through the front door, in full view of every wandering eye, and deliver the performance of a lifetime that, if done right, no one will ever know about, you hire a faceman.
    • Their skill set would include: Costuming, Impersonation, Improvisation, Knowledge disciplines such as history and geography, etc.
    • Fixer: The Fixer is a hardware specialist/multi-tool handiman. They are familiar with a host of machines and the techniques required to get at the information inside of them. When the information you need is trapped in computer, inside a safe, or behind a state of the art security system, the fixer dismantles and delivers.
      • Their skill set would include: Computers, Security knowledge, hacking, mechanical engineering, etc.
      • Infiltration: The Infiltrator is what you think of the classic Ethan Hunt-esque spy. Their specialty is getting in and getting out undetected, and the crazier the plan, the better. When the information you need is in a room no one can enter, behind a laser net, surrounded by the Death Star, the Infiltrator is the one you send down the two meter exhaust port, and they are damn happy to do it.
        • Their skill set would include: Lockpicking, Improvisation, Climbing, Fiddling with shit while upside down, Sky Diving, Improvisation, Piloting, Acrobatics, Improvisation, etc.

Again, your team can consist of up to 4 agents (you and three hired agents). You can hire 3 faceman if you would like and your plan allows, the mix is up to you. I wouldn't recommend all Infiltrators though. That group can get a little nuts.

The In Field stage covers everything that happens once the plan is set in motion. As the Handler, you are running the job from a central point, whether that be a safe house or fancy control van (The two best points of reference for this position are actually from the first Mission Impossible movie. Jon Voight runs the initial team from the first safe house, and later, Ving Rhames runs the Langley break-in from the back seat of a fire truck which has been set up as a virtual control room).

Based on the research and operation planning/set-up you were able to accomplish, you will have a host of options at your fingertips to assist your agents in getting the job done. You will not control the individual agents. I can't say this enough. You will not control the individual agents.

You are their eyes, keeping watch through security cameras or personal tactical cameras your agents may be wearing (if you spent resources on it). You relay information, listening to conversations your faceman is having, relaying on the spot information they may need to complete their cover story, or assisting in database mining/hacking, providing your fixer with additional support or schematic information or the living embodiment of the infiltrators luck, giving them the information they need to work the magic they do.

Skills regarding In Field operations deal directly with your ability as a Handler to control the situation. Points into things like Deduction allow you to pull information directly from pieces of the environment. Information Gathering would make you better at pulling up the immediate information you need when you need it (think something akin to “Her Google-fu is strong”). The Disaster Relief skill would let you take full advantage of things like fire alarms, sprinkler systems and other building/area functions that could assist in getting your agents out of tight spots.

I picture this stage controlled with a mouse and keyboard, the screen filled with a variety of camera views surrounding a virtual blue print of the area with your agents appearing as different colored dots. You would be able to see them move through the area with the camera controls, changing camera locations within the various monitors at will to give you better coverage. It doesn't have to be HD stuff either, sprites and low rez graphics can work for this, as long as you have a sense of what is going on. Faceman conversations would happen in real time, with their skills determining just how much input you need to give. Need to look up something for them, use the in game browser to search for keywords taken from the conversation. Your skills in research and information gathering would aid you hear, slowing down time while you comb through facts. Facemen would also be able to stall, giving you more time to find the right answer.

Fixer and Infiltrator info would need to be covered at the same time, other things do not stop happening just cause you are in a conversation, or hacking a device. Interaction points would be determined by which screen is selected to be displayed on your main. You need to manage your time, triage developments as they happen, and determine the right course of action to get your team in and out with the information and your secrecy in tact.

Finally, Debriefings would happen back at the Black Box, your home base of operations. You would be given a run down of your actions, a mention of any special skills you employed, extra items you had to requisition, or anything else that was not a part of the plan. Everything is assigned a resource cost (you would be aware of the cost when the action or item was asked for) and added up. Payout is determined based on success, hazard and ability to stay close to the par. Bonuses can be given based on additional objectives.

If the mission is a failure, debriefing is where you are informed of the cost of your failure. The ruling body of the Black Box makes it clear that your failure will never endanger the organization, as they have the resources and staff (think Cleaners, like Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction) to make sure your failure is not brought to light. However, the cost of those resources is taken directly out of your holdings, and multiple failures will result in your “firing” (chances are, if you have messed up enough times to be put into this situation, the organization may see you as something that needs to be “cleaned”).


So that's a pretty good estimation of what I have in my head regarding this. Obviously, this isn't any kind of bible as to what is and is not possible, but it's a beginning (and if any actual game companies are interested, I am available and for sale). I would love the chance to really develop the planning and conversation systems, as I think these two are key to making this kind of experience work.

If you have questions, comments, or anything else, don't be afraid to voice them. Like I said, this is by no means complete (but again, it can be, for money, paid to me).

Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!